Politics and Government

At Capitol, lawmakers strive for child-protection policies that keep African American families intact

A person speaks
Rep. Esther Agbaje, DFL-Minneapolis, speaks about her bill during a Minnesota House Judiciary and Public Safety Committee hearing concerning the African American Family Preservation Act, also known as Layla Jackson Law, at the State Office Building in St. Paul on April 9.
Nicole Neri for MPR News

Eight-month-old Zhakari looked overly sleepy when his mom DeClara Tripp picked him up from his nursing pillow and noticed he was struggling to breathe.

Tripp recounted recently how she quickly began efforts to get air into his lungs in 2015 and called paramedics for help.

They were rushed to Children’s Hospital in St. Paul and a doctor diagnosed Zhakari with a brain bleed. He was taken into surgery. Tripp was alerted that investigators might come asking about potential neglect.

For many more Black families than their white peers, that alone can quickly spiral into removal of the child from their home.

Minnesota lawmakers could shake up the system this year to head off out-of-home placements that can cause trauma or otherwise disrupt the family dynamic, under a proposal they’re calling the African American Family Preservation Act. Caseworkers say while the goal is worthy, they are concerned about their ability to carry it out without adequate funding, staff and direction.

In Tripp’s case, it took four years to regain custody and to clear her name after child welfare investigators removed her infant son.

A young Black boy smiles
Zhakari smiles for a photo. “After fighting for four years, his name was changed to Zach, they cut his hair, they provided a medication that I’m totally against,” DeClara Tripp, his mother, said. “There were things that, you know, culturally, I did not want done to my son.”
Courtesy photo

But she said that wasn’t her last fight. 

“This is about justice,” she said. “It’s important to push this bill for the African American families, to strengthen them, but also for the other areas where there's disparities that exist.”

Now, almost nine years after the investigation, Tripp is joining with other families affected by the child welfare system, civil rights groups and advocates to press for extra safeguards to keep Black kids in their communities.

A working group study last year found that African American kids make up nine percent of the population but 18 percent of children in need of protection or services cases. That number was even greater — 27 percent — for out-of-home placements and delinquency cases.

Despite efforts by state and local officials to address the outsized representation of African American families in the child protection system, rates haven’t budged in nearly three decades.

“Disparities for African American families exist at every decision point of the child protection process. We are over-reported at three times the rate of our white counterparts,” said Kelis Houston, chair of the Minneapolis NAACP’s Child Protection Committee and founder of Village Arms, a group that works to keep African American families together. 

The local NAACP chapter has called on the federal government to investigate Minnesota’s child welfare system given the consistent disparities. It has also advocated for the change in state law.

A person testifies
Kelis Houston, founder of family preservation and unification organization Village Arms, testifies with Rep. Esther Agbaje, DFL-Minneapolis.
Nicole Neri for MPR News

“Our families are having their rights terminated at higher rates than our white counterparts, even though we’re coming into the system, according to DHS, for less serious allegations,” Houston said.

Under pending legislation, the state and counties would have to take steps to prevent out-of-home placement of African American or disproportionately represented children, including children with disabilities, mental illness or those living in low-income homes. And if a court finds that out-of-home placement is needed, they would have to prioritize a family member or friend designated by the family.

Tripp said the change would’ve made a difference for her son. Zhakari experienced health issues that stemmed from his premature birth, she told investigators.

Child welfare workers said they found red flags in Tripp’s home and they refused to place Zhakari with a family member while the case played out in court, saying they couldn’t return him to an unsafe environment.

“They didn’t do things, as it says in the statute, to prevent out of home placement, to keep Zhakari with kin, to, you know, strengthen the family provide services,” Tripp said. “They did none of that. They were just stuck on what they thought happened to my one child.” 

As a result, Zhakari was removed and funneled through predominantly white foster homes. Both she and Zhakari experienced trauma from the process, Tripp said.

A person testifies
Family law attorney Rhia Bornmann Spears testifies with Rep. Esther Agbaje, DFL-Minneaplolis.
Nicole Neri for MPR News

“After fighting for four years, his name was changed to Zach, they cut his hair, they provided a medication that I’m totally against,” she said. “There were things that, you know, culturally, I did not want done to my son.”

The bill’s backers said it’s critical that the state build in extra steps to ensure that families aren’t penalized just for experiencing poverty.

“There have been situations where parents who don’t have any previous criminal history, they want to be parents, but they might just be struggling a little bit, have had their children taken away from them, because of a misunderstanding,” said the bill’s author, Rep. Esther Agbaje, DFL-Minneapolis. 

Hennepin County launched a three-year pilot project for similar legislation. Lawmakers in Oregon and Washington are also revising laws around neglect to address situations where families are screened into the child welfare system due to poverty. 

“Sometimes the knee jerk reaction is to remove a child from what is perceived to be an unsafe space, and then it’s not. So then what ends up happening is we create a sense of trauma and damage to that child,” Agbaje said.

The Department of Human Services has stood up an advisory council to address situations when African American families might need support and a wellbeing unit for Black children and families.

A family poses for a photo
DeClara Tripp poses for a photo with her family. It took Tripp four years to regain custody and clear her name.
Courtesy photo

In a statement attributed to the agency but no specific officials, DHS said they “remain deeply concerned about the pattern of disproportionate placements for African American children in Minnesota and support efforts to eliminate those disparities.”

County service providers said they support the bill’s aims, but raised concerns about having enough resources to meet the requirements.

“We’re concerned that we won’t be able to do it, that without investment from the state in services, in workforce and technology that we’re going to be set up to fail,” said Stacy Hennen, Western Prairie Human Services director and Traverse County Social Services director.

Hennen said that she hopes lawmakers consider a staggered deadline for rolling out training and other provisions if they decide to advance the bill. As it stands, the costs of complying with the bill haven’t been priced out yet.

“If we want to shift the culture of our workforce to being more culturally appropriate and more culturally aware, we need more training and we need it now,” Hennen said. “We need it before we implement this law, not six months after or a year after.” 

A person sworn
The co-author for the bill is Senate President Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis.
Courtesy of Glen Stubbe | Star Tribune pool 2023

The bill stands poised to move through a final committee in each chamber before moving to the House and Senate floors for a vote before the session’s May 20 adjournment.

Senate President Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, is a co-author on the bill. He said that after several iterations of the bill, he feels confident that this proposal can pass.

“I really want us to go on record to say, ‘This is important,’ and that we put a stake in the ground,” Champion said. “We’re still dealing with the same issues and it’s getting worse. We have to do something, and we have to be responsive.”

Tripp said that making frequent trips to the Capitol to testify on the legislation gives her a sense of hope. 

“When I fight for these families, it’s therapeutic for me, it helps me,” Tripp said. “I don’t want another mother, another family to experience what I experienced.”

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